Intrepid adventurer Jacki Hill-Murphy talks with Rita de Brún about women venturing off the beaten path and retracing the steps of forgotten female explorers.
Jacki-Hill-Murphy is a formidable woman. The explorer, writer, film-maker and speaker has journeyed to some of the more inhospitable territories on earth.
She did this while surefootedly retracing the steps of some of the most gutsy, fearless and awe-inspiring female pioneers that most of us have never heard of.
The Englishwoman has adventure tales to tell, and as keynote speaker at this year’s Immrama Festival of Travel Writing in Co Waterford’s Lismore, she intends to do just that.
She’s no stranger to escapades: She climbed the Digar-La in India, just as the adventurer Isabella Bird did in the 1890s. She reached the 13,255ft summit of Mount Cameroon, just as ethnographer Mary Kingsley did around the same time.
She crossed Siberia, because that’s what missionary, voyager and nurse-friend of the leprosy community Kate Marsden did in Victorian times. She travelled the length of the Amazon River, often via dugout canoe with piranha swimming beneath.
She did that because Isabel Godin did it in the 18th century, when she was the only survivor of a 4,800km expedition through the Amazon Basin.
Of all of the female explorers whose footsteps she has retraced, Hill-Murphy feels closest to Mary Kingsley.
Admitting she sometimes feels Kingsley’s spirit around her, she says: “I think we’d get on well. Also, when I was 29, I lived around the corner from where she lived at that age, roughly 100 years earlier.”
While she’s an enigmatic Englishwoman who clearly devours life, the adventurer doesn’t agree that personal safety ranks low on her list of priorities.
“The Victorian explorers in whose footsteps I followed were much more resigned than I am to the fact that they could die in the process. But I’ve no death wish.”
Adhering to the topic she then reveals that she ‘could have died’ journeying down the Amazon, on encountering hostility from some indigenous people.
“They could’ve killed us. But our excellent guide ensured we made it through.”
She’s brave off the beaten track, but does anything scare her back home?
“I’d be very frightened if a lorry comes towards me doing 60,” she replies.
She’d be forgiven for fearing buses and trucks as well: “In my travels, I was on a crammed minibus, with two hefty sows lashed to the roof, when we were nearly overwhelmed by a massive out-of-control truck, overtaking us, tyres shredding in the process.”
There were other close shaves.
“I was on a crowded bus in the mountains of northern Ecuador, when I noticed the driver was controlling the footbrake with a string kept in place by a kneeling boy.”
Sometime in the course of our conversation she remarks: “I’m not a normal girl.”
She knows best of course, but for all her extraordinariness, she’s also entirely ordinary, especially when describing working in her garden in her wellies, and enjoying ‘great conversations’ with the young people she meets while staying in hostels in far flung destinations.’
She’s interesting: “At home in Somerset, I can only get broadband on one side of my house. But when I’m on the Amazon River, I can answer my telephone because of the many oil well cell towers there.”
She’s open about how tough life was at the time of her divorce a few decades ago. “My confidence was entirely crushed. My self-esteem very low,” she recalls.
The former drama teacher wasn’t long getting back on her feet. At a time when organised adventures weren’t that prevalent, she created her own, by driving across Africa.
It wasn’t until later, when her son finished his education, that she gave full vent to her adventurous side.
She’s full of intriguing insights into the Victorian women she so admires.
Describing some, she says: “Isabella Bird hated domestic servitude, and for all her adventuring, Mary Kingsley always ensured she was back in England whenever her brother was there, so as to act as his housekeeper.”
Hill-Murphy met a conman once. They struck up a conversation in a café.
He said he had contacts that might help with transport on her next trip. He hinted that they might even gift an ambulance to the Siberian psychiatric hospital, which was formerly the leper hospital set up by Kate Marsden.
Shortly afterwards, he vamoosed without trace and it became apparent that his words were a pack of lies. In recalling the fiasco, Hill-Murphy shows no hint of disappointment. “I moved on and learned from it.”
She’s good at that. This becomes apparent when I ask whether anything on her travels ever wounded her spirit.
Without hesitation she replies: “Personal verbal attacks by people I travelled with on an earlier trip. People, who, when the going got tough, turned on me, lashed out and attacked me in a personal way.
“I have been on trips when our team didn’t gel well. But I’m much better these days at choosing my team and preparing people for what’s ahead.”
The intrepid explorer’s next big travel adventure will be to the Ecuadorian Andes.
She’s going there in search of a lost Inca trail.
Will she look for gold? “Certainly not,” she replies. “There’s a curse on that, you know.”
Female explorers are among the coolest of women, not least because of their inherent sense of adventure, curiosity, bravery, resilience and single-mindedness.
They’re women who not only push the boundaries and break the taboos that endeavour to limit and restrain their sex, but stamp all over them with their feisty fearlessness and their well-worn walking boots and flying goggles.
Jacki-Hill Murphy is one of those women.
To inspire you, here’s 10 more from days gone by:
Alexandra David-Néel (born 1868)
Best known for visiting Lhasa, Tibet, in 1924 when it was forbidden to ‘foreigners’.
Dominick Arduin (born 1960)
Disappeared while attempting to become the first woman to ski alone to the North Pole.
Amelia Earhart (born 1897)
First woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Disappeared in 1937, when attempting to circumnavigate the globe.
Gertrude Bell (born 1868)
Explored and mapped in Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and Arabia. Climbed Mont Blanc. Recorded new paths in Bernese Alps.
Fanny Bullock Workman (born 1859)
One of the first female professional mountaineers, she championed women’s rights. Trekked up the Himalayas and cycled through Algeria and India.
Isabella Bird (born 1831)
Travelled alone through India, Persia, Turkey, Morocco, Kurdistan, Japan, Hawaii and more. Allegedly threatened to sue The Times for reporting she “rode like a man” rather than side saddle.
Jeanne Baret (born 1740)
The first woman to circumnavigate the world, doing so disguised as a man.
Octavie Coudreau (born 1870)
Explored the Amazon region in Brazil and French Guiana.
Aimée Crocker (born 1864)
Explored Java and Borneo and the Far East. The mystic was given a Hawaiin island by its last King, along with the title Princess Palaikalani — Bliss of Heaven.
Freya Stark (born 1893)
Travelled through the Arabian Desert, Middle East and Afghanistan.